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Intellectual Atrophy of Two Karachi Generations

Intellectual Atrophy of Two Karachi Generations

When some of my students started signing up for jobs at Phillip Morris, Pfizer and Citibank, I was a little concerned.  Had we taught them the technicalities of the English legal system so as to enable them to live the yuppy dream, enjoy the fruits of neo-liberalism, get a big paycheck, and buy their coffee at Gloria Jean?  Students want to secure their financial future in the backdrop of a violent city with a nervous energy that runs through every citizen, the violence touching us often.  We’ve missed the boat on 20 year olds.  We’ve forgotten to teach them they should be facilitators for the dominated not the dominators, and how – and work for the interest of communities being displaced by mega projects, small farmers, and those suffering lung cancer, not the banks that give loans for the projects and abscond, companies that manufacture GMO seeds and cigarettes.  Students ignorant, apathetic, unbothered by ordinary morality, work as legal clerks at big banks, large firms, and MNCs.  It doesn’t matter that these companies are responsible for the spread of Hepatitis in communities.  There are no fiercely progressive legal aid or public interest jobs to attract them either or to push them into the midst of rights based work – guaranteeing them a nice package while saving their souls.  There is no high culture as such. The quaint old practice of law in the courts is enticing but there is a whole dance you must do, a hierarchy you must accede to as you taken on a pro bono case or two.  The lawyer’s movement was not about dismantling power structures or mending internal defects – it was about winning respect for their absurd fraternity.

For this generation of graduates there’s only a market with jobs that facilitate huge companies or maintain traditional hierarchies of class and gender.  Nothing  truly radical or emancipatory.  There are no voices advocating for prisoners rights or rights to land and seeds as human rights.  I met an environmental lawyer at a Karachi conference recently; he seemed to know a lot about forests and bragged about being at a panel in an American university.  We got talking about Mushir Alam’s statement in the wake of the attack on Justice Maqbool Baqar that the executive must not drag its feet in executing the 6K condemned prisoners.  I told him I am fundamentally opposed to capital punishment.  It’s not a deterrent and it is anti-poor.  He then went onto advocate castration for rapists.  I fled in panic and worried at the thought that I had so trustingly invited him to visit our school. “You see” he said, “in our society you must publicly execute because it’s more appropriate.”  There is this sense that we with our special DNA, cultural history, and dheet propensity, deserve humiliating public violence.   It’s no surprise, that a slow ten year roast under the old fans of Karachi courts have turned us into neo-liberal monsters with disorganized thinking.

Here’s a whole generation and their teachers one hundred workshops on gender rights, peasants’ rights, and Marxist ideology could not fix.  Shehri, a Karachi NGO, has undertaken a project to teach civil society how to utilize the Freedom of Information laws and get hold of public documents from the GoP – a good effort, but too little too late.  We have failed to instill even an old fashioned system of holding elected officials accountable.  There is no culture, at least in Karachi, of working with the forest department to stop mangrove chopping, with the irrigation department to prevent big dam building, with the city against needless flyovers.  There is not enough public participation in policy making.  Communities do not show up at environmental impact hearings and shout down and wear out the Chinese companies, the Vopaks, the BPs, and the contract cut mafia.  Let the market’s brutal hand cover the landscape with distorted, incongruous development — as we stand by, appeased by a mall, and too lazy to read even the executive summary.  In 2007, “Saahil Bachao” rallied to stop Dubai from turning Karachi’s Sea View into an elite beach enclave.  Now Emaar is back at Sea View.   Malik Riaz and Bahria are itching to annex islands.  These are the land grabbers who find legal cover to build diamond bar island cities, and office cubicles, digging the earth reclaiming, as need be, from the ocean and from locals.  In Keti Bandar in Thatta district, a “Dubai Sheikh” has set up villa amidst mud shacks of the poorest fisherman.  He doles out charity and uses the place as a launching pad for his debaucheries.  Why has he has not been evicted by the locals — now that would be redemptive violence.  But he too blends into the broken landscape and is permitted his brand of narcissistic cruelty.

However, one narrative is easy.  Blame the government without nuance.  In 2010 the GoS gave over 55K acres to landless women and some men.  It was a deeply imperfect process.  What we need is an active (uncivil) society that pushes for more of this minus its inbuilt problems, and less of the diamond bars.

There is a lost generation or two that failed to carry forward the work of the likes of Arif Hasan, Tasneem Siddqui, Professor Nauman, Khadim Talpur, even Sheema — people who have some firsthand experience working with rural and poor communities, never mind defections.  Instead you have the generation of the social entrepreneurs who believe in market based solutions for the poor.  However, there is one important lesson even the feel good entrepreneurs have learned through the 2000s — that without the government there is no hope.  A neat and nifty project in a glossy booklet makes a great story, but it’s only state intervention that can bring widespread change.  You can’t guarantee safe drinking water to the poor and rural communities by selling it in a bottle; you need sustainable solutions that address the root cause of pollution of supplies at Kanjheer and Haleji,  through industrial and agri waste as well as poorly maintained infrastructure.    Mohsin Hamid makes an effort but fails to drive a stake through the heart of the water privatization mafia, in his “How to Become (Filthy) Rich in A Rising Asia.”  Instead of producing earnest researchers, we end up with compromised art that is tripping on its own cleverness.  Why make for film when you can make it for a revolution.

We are responsible for a generation that enjoys the whimsical cruelty of Dolmen Mall.  Positioned by the sea, this overly resourced and fully air conditioned super mall, where aunties with a hole in their soul, browse through five thousand rupee “Mango” blouses, makes a mockery of the indigenous mallah community that has been driven to the slums.  The city government dumps its solid waste here; land mafia then occupies the landfills; gutter lines flow into water supplies, and the locals pay Rs.6 for a matka of safe drinking water.  Yet this disparity has failed to inspire a rebellion or bring elite kids out in solidarity with the poor.   We are automatons to our own contradictions.  It’s too tiring to sustain a rebellion; everyone suffers from vitamin D deficiency and nervous energy if not ghutka addiction.  Everyone has their own project.  Talk shows are mental trauma, yet many are informed by these.  Two years ago at a gallery showcasing “dhaba art”, a young artist had a piece on how talk shows were the sole intellectual sustenance of two generations.  Nice thought, but he was selling it for 50K.  Young artists have already valued their work at prices they would earn in 50 years when there are renowned.


Ibrahim Hyderi

Ibrahim Hyderi

Young women are distracted by matrimony.  Study what they may, on the side, they want to delve into clothes, jewelry and shoe design.   Once in a while a student will go rogue and disappear, and reappear in a sullen mood on Facebook, emaciated like a model and pretty.  Liberal feminism has made one change — exceptions to mainstream beauty are now allowed.  Many middle class women are more confident.  Younger women feel beautiful — doesn’t matter that Dove Shampoo tells them to.  Jeans and sleeveless tops do not alarm anyone in parts of Karachi.  But mostly women internalize gender coding. And sleeveless tops or hijabs, instead of liberating them, are ways to micro market themselves.

It’s not easy for women to be career oriented.  In many cases, girls work because of a supportive father with dreams who indulges his child before succumbing to shaadi pressure.  But, in a place where sexual harassment laws hardly prevail and gender equity has not seeped into consciousness, women suffer dozens of cases of harassment every day at the workplace.  I’ve had a student tell me a male teacher stared in class forcing her to cover her shoulders with a dupatta and giving a whole new meaning to a captive audience.   Why break norms to suffer indignities.  Why be a maverick when there is no larger supportive culture and slut shaming is perpetuated through media.  And in my opinion, why break the glass ceiling to prove the “Suits” are broad minded.

In Urdu dramas, career women or women who assert their sexuality are transgressive and suffer in the end and are left alone muttering nonsensically.  Women are pitted against each other in matriarchal warfare.  Post menopausal women are either Allah walis or total witches.  A rare glimpse of women unchained by their bodies was in the otherwise quirky play, “Portrait of Rumi” by DadaDali recently performed at the Hindu Gymkhana.  Indian cinema offers rebels with futile causes.  Even love died when Ranbhir and matched up with his real life ex Deepika to market a cozy lifestyle to an entitled gen.

DHA Today

This generation and its teachers refuse to see systems of gender and class oppression, and instead appease conscience through religion – a privatization of guilt that allows people to dissociate widespread injustice from their daily actions.  As long as you are giving your Zakat, performing Hajj, and giving your metabolism a run for its money, you are forgiven.  Health and safety violations at your factory are wiped away when you give a 500 rupee bonus to each worker for Ramzan.   Charity mafia springs into action during Ramzan.  No crazy kid will jump up once in a while and issue a fiery statement instead of offers of prayers when something bad happens.  Religious minorities at school blend in but prefer to pass rather than assert themselves as Hindus, Parsis or Christians.  Once in a while some student will go fundoo on me.  We can talk of syncretism of Hindu-Muslim culture in parts of Thar, but in our cities, beyond anti-blasphemy law activism institutionalized through NGOs, religious minorities have not even begun to document the daily disgrace and invisibility they suffer.

Then the mascot for two generations – Mansoor Mujahid – a generation that needs to secure their financial future and their teachers, comfortable with gun-guard-gated culture.  From a perhaps struggling media sciences student at a private college in Clifton to rising star award winning film maker touring NYC to alleged murderer to victim of a corrupt criminal justice system .  Play Hard, Party Hard.  Bypass the system if you can.

About Abira Ashfaq

Abira Ashfaq is a lawyer and a law teacher who will write for various reasons including but not limited to the following: food, ideology, and five rupees.

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